2009 was a year of delights at the movies. The list below testifies to that. It doesn't rival '07 when two examples of virtual moviemaking perfection were released--namely "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" but '09 may have been filled with as many unexpectedly joyful film going experiences as I can remember in a single calendar year.
From sitting in the first public screening of what should have been a forgetful and frivolous romantic comedy on a frigid night in Park City (see #8) to being flabbergasted by the inventiveness of a would-be sci-fi auteur (whose name I couldn't spell or pronounce at the time, see #7) for 112 riveting minutes. Franchises were reborn. Genres were injected with new life. Stephen Sommers made a watchable film called "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra." Young filmmakers came of age. And one mad genius with the heart of a pussycat and 300 million at his disposal opened our eyes once more to how a night at the movies can make us feel.
THE TOP TEN (er ELEVEN)
10. BRIGHT STAR/AN EDUCATION
I had a devil of a time coming up with my number ten pick so I'm ripping off A.O. Scott's pairing practice here (side note: review of the year award goes to his "Seven Pounds" pan) by acknowledging the symmetrical pleasures of these two. Each was a soaring and shatteringly honest depiction of love and more importantly love lost. Each was a sumptuous recreation of a bygone time. And each sported some of my favorite performances of the year-from Carey Mulligan's deservedly praised leading portrayal to a criminally underappreciated turn by Paul Schneider.
Forget Holmes & Watson and "I Love You, Man"'s Rudd and Segel, the one true bromance of 2009 can be found here in the documentary of the year. Funny, poignant, inspiring, and always engrossing, Lips and Robb turned me into a metal head for two hours and if that doesn't merit inclusion on this list I don't know what does.
The shorthand for this film was a true-life version "This is Spinal Tap" but it's really as much a story of dreams, tenacity, denial, friendship, and family. Some of the best documentaries expose a world at once both foreign and familiar. That "Anvil!" resonated so much with me and so many others who couldn't care a lick about their music speaks volumes.
Expectations vs. reality. I'm talking both about the moving and wise pivotal scene towards the end of this film and what made the movie such a joy from start to finish. Slavishly faithful to the conceits of the genre yet infused with vitality, sly humor, and non-cloying sincerity, "(500) Days" cemented our love for its two lead actors AND signaled a new filmmaking talent to watch in director Marc Webb.
There may be no genre today more run down and sullied with lazy filmmaking and by-the-numbers scripts than the poor romantic comedy. The beauty of "(500) Days of Summer" wasn't in its jumbled time narrative but in Webb and the screenwriters' deft balance of humor and truth not to mention an authentic portrayal of self-denial by the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
7. DISTRICT 9
Speaking of new talent to watch, let's discuss the case of "District 9." Watching this film for the first time before the hype machine began was about as great and unexpected a time I had in a movie theater this year. Like many I marveled at the slow epiphany of who the hero of this story was and like many I simply didn't want the story to end.
For some obvious reasons and some less so when I think of "District 9" I keep thinking back to exhilarating rush I got the first time I saw "Robocop." One hesitates to anoint greatness after just one film but Neill Blomkamp's debut shows off such sophistication and showmanship behind the camera not to mention a true sci-fi geek's spirit I won't hesitate in saying that Blomkamp is clearly the filmmaker find of the year. Wherever he goes next I and a legion of others will surely follow.
6. STAR TREK
Two sci-fi flicks in a row?!? Just wait. But truly, each of these films transcended their genre and in the case of "Star Trek" reminded some of us why we fell for Gene Roddenberry's creation in the first place--character, character, character. I was as pessimistic as anyone. The annoying guy from "Heroes"? A forgettable pretty boy best known for co-starring with Lindsay Lohan in a piece of drivel called "Just My Luck"? Trust in J.J., my friends. They all delivered. And don't get me started on Karl Urban.
Meanwhile the opening sequence of this film remains my favorite of the year, hurtling you into the 23rd century and building to an undeniable emotional crescendo. It's the film I've seen the most on this list and surely the one I'll keep returning to for two hours of comfort food. It's a romp. Smart, fun, a slick and sleek piece of pop-art.
Brad Pitt garnered all the initial headlines but it's the likes Michael Fassbender, Daniel Bruhl, Melanie Laurent, and dear God thank you for Christof Waltz that help this join the ranks of Tarantino's greatest. I can't recall another film that introduced so many thrillingly watchable characters portrayed by actors I'd literally never seen before. I'd happily watch a movie about any of a half dozen of these characters.
Bold and audacious. Funny and mesmerizing. Standard issue adjectives associated with the great Tarantino but let's not take them for granted nonetheless. The introduction of Col. Landa and the bar sequence are nothing less than cinematic perfection.
Calling "Where The Wild Things Are" an effective mood piece doesn't begin to do it justice but that's just what it is, not to mention an achingly true to life evocation of the complexities of childhood. "Where the Wild Things Are" is magical and mysterious thanks to a top to bottom brilliant creative team. From the performances to the score to Spike Jonze's oh so right impulse to NOT Hollywood it up (one shudders to think what this could have been in the hands of an on the nose director) this so-called children's film is the year's most haunting.
How do you find an equal coutnerpoint to one of the best child performances in ages? If you're Jonze you elicit some of the most heartbreaking voice performances I've ever heard. I don't know what made him think of James Gandolfini but I can't imagine another tough guy moving me to the brink of tears with a howl now.
A lot has been made about how current and "of the moment" this film is but I wouldn't feel comfortable placing it so near the top of my list if it I didn't believe in its staying power. Yes, "Up in the Air" will stand as a marker for the times in which we lived, the disconnectedness and overarching sadness and uncertainty. But it's in those all too human relationships that Ryan Bingham desperately tries to cut himself off from that the film finds its heart.
Clooney continues to prove he's got the acting chops to rival that seemingly effortless movie star swagger. He and his two equally dynamic leading ladies, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, make this film eminently watchable and Reitman's reliably deft touch as a filmmaker pushes all the right buttons leaving you with your head in the clouds at the end.
In a pretty crappy year for comedies (I may be out of touch but did you really love "The Hangover"?!? Really?!?) it's no surprise that "A Serious Man" walks away with the top honor. But its shaky company is not to diminish its presence here. "A Serious Man" is pure unadulterated Coen brothers perfection. It's the ultimate slow burn punctuated by moments of absurdity as only Joel and Ethan can do. I don't know what it all means but I know it joins the ranks of the Coen brothers elite and that means I'll be watching it on the regular for the rest of my days.
The precision in the Coens visual and aural treatment is just unparalleled. When I think of "A Serious Man" I think of throat clearing and ear hair and droopy wrinkled skin and I love it all. And I'm still obsessed with Sy Abelman. His name. His look. His voice. Everything.
It's admittedly easy to fall into hyperbolic exclamations when discussing (maybe) the biggest movie ever made but here we go...
"Avatar" is why we go to the movies. Or to make it more personal, "Avatar" is why I fell in love with the movies. It inspires awe and emotion by equal measure and that's a mean feat when the former has the most sophisticated effects ever created behind it. Anchored by soulful performances (Worthington and Saldana impress more with each viewing) that somehow transcend the spectacle, "Avatar" takes its rightful place alongside the great wondrous epics that stand for what the medium can be at its best. I've seen "Avatar" three times and it makes me feel like a kid again every time. I look forward to taking the trip again.